Sep 6, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Situational awareness: The Justice Department has launched an antitrust investigation into four automakers that forged an independent agreement with California on vehicle-emissions standards, the Wall Street Journal reports. More on that below.

  • Expert Voices contributor Raphael Gindrat writes about technology that can make public buses more efficient.
  • Smart Brevity count: 1,289 words, < 5 minute read
1 big thing: Dancing around the GM jobs issue

GM CEO Mary Barra departs the White House on Sept. 5. Photo: Reuters/David Shepardson

GM CEO Mary Barra paid a visit to the Oval Office Thursday, no doubt an awkward meeting after the pounding the automaker has taken from President Trump on Twitter lately.

  • But with plenty to talk about — jobs, trade, fuel economy — Barra called it a "productive and valuable" session and the White House didn't disagree.

The big picture: GM is facing intense pressure from the White House to bring jobs back from China and Mexico after announcing plans to idle 4 U.S. factories in important swing states.

What's happening: The United Auto Workers union, steaming about the intended plant closings, has selected GM to set a new pattern labor agreement for the industry.

  • Union members have authorized a national strike if a deal isn't reached by the Sept. 14 deadline.

Between the lines: The four GM factories have been designated as "unallocated" — meaning GM has no products assigned to those plants in the future. (A fifth is unallocated in Canada, where workers belong to a different union.)

  • The semantics matter: Under the existing labor contract, GM can't close, idle, sell off or consolidate plants, except in the case of a sudden market downturn or an act of God. Hence, the odd term "unallocated."
  • The UAW sued GM for violating the agreement, but the issue is likely to be resolved at the bargaining table long before it is heard in court.
  • Although 3 of the 4 factories have already stopped production, none of the factories can be shuttered for good without the union's sign-off.
  • "These plants are absolutely bargaining chips and the union is not going to give up on allocating those plants without getting something in return," says Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research.

What to watch: As in previous negotiations, GM likely has plans to "save" hundreds of jobs in exchange for worker concessions on health care or other benefits. Among the possibilities:

  • GM plans to introduce 20 new electric vehicles by 2023, mostly for the Chinese market, but Barra has told Axios that at least some will be built in the U.S.
  • GM could also transfer some production from Mexico, where it currently builds pickups, SUVs, engines and transmissions.
  • But U.S. autoworkers earn roughly $30 per hour vs. $3 for their Mexican counterparts, Dziczek notes.
  • About 2,000 of 2,800 affected union workers have already accepted transfers to other GM plants — receiving $5,000–$30,000 incentive pay — but many could return to their home plants if production is restarted.

The bottom line: The drama will increase between now and the Sept. 14 contract deadline, but look for hundreds of U.S. manufacturing jobs to be created or retained — an outcome likely to please Trump.

Go deeper: The American car is becoming obsolete

2. Feds aims to block Calif.'s emissions end run

Photo: Ken Ross/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

President Trump is pulling out all the stops to shut down an effort by California to enlist automakers on a plan that would undermine his administration’s effort to roll back strict Obama-era carbon emissions and mileage mandates.

Where it stands: DOJ is seeking to determine if Ford, VW, Honda and BMW "violated federal competition law by agreeing with each other to follow tailpipe-emissions standards beyond those proposed by the Trump administration," WSJ reports.

  • The story cites anonymous sources familiar with the matter. DOJ declined to comment. Ford, Honda and BMW said they will cooperate with DOJ on the matter.
  • VW couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

On a second front, lawyers for the EPA and DOT Thursday warned Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, of legal action if the state tries to set its own rules "that would violate federal law."

Why it matters: The 2-pronged attack stands to escalate tensions between Washington, Sacramento and the auto industry over Trump's plan to freeze emissions standards at 2022 levels, rather than allow them to climb sharply higher.

  • By targeting the 4 companies that signed the California deal to make cleaner cars, the administration aims to dissuade more automakers from joining.
  • GM, whose CEO met with Trump on Thursday, is not likely to sign on to the California plan, sources tell Axios.

The Trump administration is cranking up the heat. Multiple reports Thursday said that the EPA will soon move to revoke California's authority to set its own vehicle pollution rules, Axios' Ben Geman writes.

The bottom line: The administration appears to be taking no chances that California's attempted end run gains momentum while it finalizes its own, looser requirement.

3. Tech could make public buses more efficient

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Technology used in ride-hailing and other new mobility services could be used to make public bus networks more environmentally friendly and convenient, Raphael Gindrat writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: Public buses are frequently criticized as unreliable, inefficient and alternatively near-empty or so full that they skip stops, but electric buses with next-generation technology and flexible routes could help address congestion and emissions.

What's happening: Public transit ridership is down across the U.S. due in part to new mobility services like ride-hailing and scooters.

What's needed: Many municipal bus services rely on manual surveys of passengers to assess user preferences and modify routes — an expensive and unreliable practice.

  • Instead, by analyzing ticket data and using fleet optimization software, transit agencies could match supply and demand in real time, dispatching additional vehicles on particularly busy routes, or adding flexible routes at peak hours.
  • Contactless payment could also speed boarding times and keep buses on time.
  • In Strasbourg, France, the transit agency replaced a traditional bus line with modular electric shuttles that can add or remove cabins as demand shifts throughout the day.

But, but, but: Cities across the U.S. and world-wide are struggling with adopting electric buses, including installation of the required charging infrastructure.

Read the full post.

Raphael Gindrat is co-founder and CEO of Bestmile, which has developed a fleet-management platform and whose clients include Strasbourg's transit agency.

4. Driving the conversation

Regrouping: Faraday hires former BMW exec as global CEO in restructuring (Alexa St. John — Automotive News)

  • Why it matters: Growth at the Chinese electric car startup has stalled amid changes in leadership and ongoing financial struggles. Industry veteran Carsten Breitfeld, who also cofounded Chinese EV maker Byton, brings credibility that could help with fundraising and development efforts.

Plotting: TomTom maps out revamp with bet on self-driving cars (Natalia Drozdiak — Bloomberg)

  • Why it matters: Displaced by smartphone maps, the once-popular TomTom is now battling with the likes of Apple, Google and HERE Technologies to create digital maps for robot-driven cars.

Black hole: BMW unveils X6 in the world's "blackest black" (Jack Guy —CNN)

  • Why it matters: Looking at this prototype paint job is like looking into a black hole. That's not practical for real cars, but the technology could be used on AV sensors, reducing sunlight damage and improving performance and safety.
5. What I'm driving

Kia Soul GT-Line. Photo: Kia Motors

This week I'm tooling around in a $22,000 Kia Soul X-Line, a toaster-shaped compact that oozes personality.

Why it matters: This is the third-generation Soul and somehow, its quirky style just keeps getting better with age.

  • Its upright stance hasn't changed, but styling enhancements and high-tech lighting make it seem more futuristic and youthful.
  • Inside, mood lighting and a unique 3D pattern surface on the upper door panels sync to the car's audio system.
  • The surprisingly roomy interior has a lot of hard plastic surfaces, as you'd expect in an entry-level car, but it doesn't feel cheap.
  • The standard 2.0 liter engine gets 30 mpg (27 city/33 highway) or you can upgrade to the GT-Line with 1.6-liter turbo.

Even at this price, the Soul comes with standard safety features, including blind spot warning, lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert.

  • Forward-collision avoidance and driver attention warning are available on some models, but not on the X-Line I tested. They're standard on GT-Line models, along with a head-up display.

The bottom line: Car and Driver described the Soul as "a point-and-shoot kind of car, one that's competent, if not exactly fun to drive." I disagree. You feel younger driving the Soul.

Joann Muller